By CHARLES BOOTHE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
PRINCETON, W.Va. — Anyone driving down Mercer Street in Princeton can quickly notice the changes made in recent years, with new businesses, beautification projects and building renovations.
From the coming reopening of the iconic Jimmy’s Restaurant and a new microbrewery to the Princeton Renaissance Project, the atmosphere has changed from the days of empty storefronts and a high crime rate.
“There is a different vibe going on downtown and throughout Princeton,” Assistant Town Manager Mike Webb said recently, and that vibe is bringing growth and people.
A customized gun and outdoor equipment coating company is also coming.
“The new craft beer brewery is also taking shape on Mercer Street,” he said. “Construction on the inside is happening now.”
Little Caesar’s moved into its new facility on Stafford Drive earlier this year and the BP Station was renovated to include a Subway. Webb said other new restaurants include a Mexican restaurant on Stafford Drive and Emmit’s Down South, specializing in barbecue and gourmet hot dogs, located at the corner of Stafford Drive and Courthouse Road.
The old Von Court apartment building is also being renovated, he said, with 16 to 18 apartments on the way. “That is a big deal,” he added. “It’s great for the city.”
While these projects are ongoing inside city limits, growth continues just outside the limits as well.
“We even have some development on the edge of the city,” City Manager Kenneth Clay said recently “There’s one across from city hall.”
Clay was referring to an office building, at the intersection of South Walker Street and Emory Avenue, which is now open.
Vice Mayor Tim Ealy said Princeton may also be benefiting from growth around the exit 9 area of Interstate 77, just east of the city limits.
A Mexican restaurant is relocating there in a new building and a new Chick-fil-A opened earlier this year nearby.
Many other restaurants are in the exit 9 area as well as a Walmart, Lowe’s and hotels.
“I think some of these places (around the exchange) are realizing that the growth is here and want to go downtown and get some of that business,” he said. “We are really excited to see these businesses. We are excited to see these businesses growing and investing in the community.”
Ealy said other businesses are in the process of planning an expansion but not yet announced their exact plans.
“Things are happening here,” he said. “They may not be big manufacturers, but it’s solid hometown community things. We’re excited they are investing here and that is what counts.”
Ealy also emphasized the Mercer Street growth.
“That area had a bad reputation for a long time,” he said. “Now, it’s continuing to grow. People are investing and remodeling the buildings. It is encouraging to see that.”
All of this growth is great, but Ealy said traffic around town has been on the rise.
It’s not only in the Stafford Driver area. The intersection of Athens Road, Rogers Street and Thorn Street is a busy place.
“If I’m not mistaken that intersection sees 13,000 to 14,000 cars a day,” he said, adding that a left turn lane is scheduled to be installed on Rogers Street to turn onto Thorn Street and that will help some.
Another busy intersection is Locust Street (coming off Rt. 460) and Rogers Street.
“We have asked and asked and asked (WVDT) for a traffic light there,” he said. “They tell us there is not enough traffic to warrant one.”
But he’ll take the added traffic.
“It’s all exciting,” he said.
The city has also acquired the Dean Company property and will eventual move city functions to that area.
All agree that one of the most exciting initiatives has been the Princeton Renaissance Project, which is revitalizing Mercer Street.
Greg Puckett, a Mercer County Commissioner and head of Community Connections, has been instrumental in starting the project and continues to work on it.
In fact, Puckett was on Mercer Street Saturday with his daughter Lauren painting a mural on a wall to brighten up an empty lot.
But one of the major goals of the project is the renovation of the old LaVon Theater, next to Jimmy’s Restaurant.
“It’s coming along,” Puckett said of the work. “We are seeking grants to finish it and going after foundation money as well.”
Donations have also poured in for the renovations.
The theater, which closed in 1983, was built in 1911 with 350 seats and a balcony, and called the Royal Theater.
Work inside is moving along after the theater was gutted last year.
A new marquee, with the same style as the original, has already been installed and sports a large letter “R,” referring to the original name of the theater as well as the new name, the Renaissance Theater.
When completed, the theater will include a main stage/theater area on street level, seating about 300, plus a smaller venue with a stage upstairs, seating about 40.
A museum of film and theater artifacts will be included as well as a community meeting room.
Plans also include installation of state-of-the-art lighting, digital projection and Dolby sound.
The Chuck Mathena Center on Stafford Drive is a big draw for residents and visitors alike.
As opposed to the smaller performing arts center the old LaVon Theater will offer, the Mathena Center offers a large venue and attracts concerts, plays and dance.
The Moscow Festival Ballet will return to the center next year, the third consecutive year the famed company has performed at the center.
A new development in the renaissance project, he said, is the inclusion of a Mercer Street Grassroots District, extending from the 5th Street area to the Bee Street vicinity.
“We want to see revitalization throughout this area,” he said.
Further east is the Historic District, which has its own identity and includes the Railroad Museum.
Lori McKinney, who is also involved with the Princeton Renaissance project and owns a business on Mercer Street (RiffRaff Arts Collective), said she is excited about all the renovations and new stores.
A new video, which is on the YouTube and the Princeton Renaissance Facebook page, highlights the growth and cultural activities, from the festivals and vintage car cruise-ins to the Downtown Countdown New Year’s Eve celebration.
It also promotes the Mercer Street Grassroots District initiative.
“We emphasize crafts, culture and commerce,” she said, referring to the participation of local artists and craftsmen, cultural history and revitalized business atmosphere in the city.
McKinney is also instrumental in bringing opportunities for local performers to hone their skills.
On the third floor of the RiffRaff building an old ballroom has been converted into The Room Upstairs, which is a venue on Monday nights for poets, musicians, dancers, comedians and thespians.
Live performances are also held there on weekends.
The concerted efforts to make Princeton a destination for visitors continues, and the work will also serve to reacquaint local residents with a once deteriorating Mercer Street that is now rebounding.
“We are excited about all of this,” Puckett said.
Contact Charles Boothe at [email protected]
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